Skip to main content

High School Youth Design Innovative Tech Solutions for Better Mental Health

High School Youth Design Innovative Tech Solutions for Better Mental Health

By Laiah Idelson, MSPH | June 4, 2019
Strategic Partnerships & Innovation Lead, YTH Initiative, ETR

What happens when a motivated, creative group of high school juniors and seniors is asked, “How might we use technology to create an innovative solution to improve the mental health of young people?”

To answer this question, our team conducted nine workshops from January through April this year. Seventy-seven juniors and seniors at De Anza High School in Richmond, CA, joined in. We guided them through the youth centered design process, covering topics such as design research, synthesis, ideation and prototyping.

Youth Centered Health Design (YCHD) employs principles of positive youth development and human-centered design to position young people as experts in solving the challenges affecting their lives. By utilizing human-centered design methodology in meaningful partnership with young people, we can create solutions that have the ability to truly make an impact and transform lives. (Watch for future posts on this exciting approach to youth engagement. YTH has been a leader in this area from our inception. Now that we have joined in to share missions with ETR, we look forward to describing our YCHD experiences and strategies with members of ETR’s network.)

This challenge was sponsored by Facebook for Education with substantial support from the Stanford Center for Youth Mental Health and Wellbeing.

Winning Ideas

Two student winners from the Wellness Whale team present at YTH Live.In April, the students presented their ideas to a panel of judges comprised of mental health, technology and design experts. The five top-scoring teams then presented their prototypes at the 2019 YTH Live conference to another panel of judges. Each team prepared a brief pitch about their prototype—what it was, the background research they had done to support their design, and focus and test group findings gathered from their peers. The range of ideas was impressive—live chat programs, artificial intelligence interfaces, skills-based challenges and more.

The winning team, Wellness Whale, proposed a programmable stuffed-animal whale that could produce soothing sounds, generate warmth and even predict a panic attack. The plushie synced up with an app to track a user’s mental health data, much as a Fitbit tracks health data. The team won a $1,000 prize.

The runner up team, Happy-E Pets, envisioned a customizable app that would offer positive affirmations from cute animal avatars. Avatars would send out reminders to engage in healthy behaviors such as studying effectively and drinking water, and support positive goal-setting. The team won $500.

These winning ideas imagined creative online and offline systems that supported skills to address anxiety, stress and time management for young people in their communities.

Why Mental Health?

Three student winners from the Happy-E Pets team present their pitch at YTH Live.We undertook this effort because we frequently hear from the young people we work with that mental health issues are a top concern. Even so, few organizations or health professionals are actually engaging directly with young people to develop youth-centered solutions. Harnessing YTH’s core principle of youth-centered health design allows us to address that lack of youth voice in solving problems affecting youth lives.

As the daughter of a therapist, I had my fair share of mental health conversations as a kid. If you had told me a few years ago I would be leading a mental health-focused project, I would have responded, “No way!” But I also know that young people identify mental health as a priority. If we are to address youth health in a way that is transformative to their lives, we must talk about the topics that are important to them.

The ideas the youth in this challenge came up with are grounded in their lived experiences. What struck me the most about their prototypes was that 100% of these youth developed ideas addressing stress. It's clear that today's students are stressed out, overworked and worried for their future. They desire better quality familial and social relationships.

Winning teams and mentors/teachers on stage at YTH Live.While they understand that technology can be harmful to young people’s mental wellbeing, they also believe in the ability of technology to provide support for better mental health. And they are committed advocates for improving the futures of their peers. These students gracefully navigated a rigorous design process while also handling college applications, a multitude of other school assignments, jobs and other extracurriculars.

YTH is committed to working on youth mental health issues through partnerships like this one, both locally and around the world. Our hope is that by working directly with youth, hearing their stories, and empowering them to lead the design process, we can build solutions that meaningfully address the mental health challenge of the next generation.


Laiah Idelson, MSPH, is the Strategic Partnerships & Innovation Lead for the YTH Initiative at ETR. She has worked in the U.S. and internationally in the areas of mobile health, health education and youth empowerment. She can be reached at

Sign up for the ETR Health Newsletter.

Social Media :

  • YouTube
  • LinkedIn
  • Twitter
  • Facebook
  • Instagram